Ten years on and the evolution continues

As FinanceAsia.com celebrates its 10th birthday, we look back on what it was like to be conceived and born at the height of the dotcom boom.

Like many internet strategies formulated in the late-1990s, the plan to build a website for FinanceAsia was bold and far-reaching. This was the height of the dotcom boom, after all, when it was thought that every company needed a cleverly designed, fully interactive website that could be launched at lightning speed. Those who ignored this imperative would be left standing in a cloud of dust while the rest raced ahead into a digital future.

The internet, we were led to believe, was going to transform media companies from simple purveyors of news and editorial opinion into vast content aggregators. Readers would be able to navigate seamlessly between websites and, in no time at all, would become content generators themselves, sharing their wisdom through message boards and chatrooms (the word 'blog' hadn't yet been adopted). Most importantly, everything would be free because, in the new-media age, charging for stories would only drive people to seek the same information elsewhere at no cost. The demise of traditional printed publications, we expected, would be rapid and conclusive.

It was no surprise then that our early internet ambitions involved more than just building a site to complement our successful magazine. The first drafts of our plan, mapped out in 1999, included some fairly audacious ideas, like publishing a database of email addresses of every Asia-related financial professional around the globe, and designing a series of investor relations mini-sites whereby companies would pay us to run a profile of their business on our website.

Next door in the advertising department we hired an over-priced consultant to bring our ad salespeople up to speed on the difference between a banner and a button. We delved into the magic world of search-engine optimisation and meta-tags, and test drove ad-serving technology that would spew out reams of data on click throughs and page impressions. This was cutting-edge stuff; it meant we would no longer be constrained by the industry norms of writing niche stories for a niche audience and selling advertising based on the quality of our readership. The success of our website, we thought, wouldn't rest so much on the articles that we produced ourselves, but on how many hyperlinks we could form with affiliated websites.

The first step, though, would be to find someone to build the site. "I am convinced the most talented software people are Indians," wrote one of our directors in an early email. Followed by: "As a rule of thumb, if someone starts talking to us about salary requirements before equity requirements, we should conclude they are not suitable." When the search for Indian web developers yielded too many logistical problems, we looked to Hong Kong, only to find that the handful of web developers that were active in the city at the time were either too busy or weren't able to convince us that they could build the infrastructure necessary to carry a cosmic amount of content.

In the end, we settled on a Sydney company called Microset (consisting of two programmers working out of a shop-front in the city's western suburbs) that was experimenting with new code for so-called "content management systems". The system would allow our journalists to file via the web from anywhere in Asia (or anywhere in the world, for that matter). It would be built using Allaire's Spectra technology, but would be tweaked to take into consideration our own workflow management and allow for two-way syndication of editorial content.

After three months of frantic programming and revising, the soft-launch of FinanceAsia.com occurred in June of 2000. The site carried the tag line "the network for financial decision makers" and our journalists learned quickly about the rigorous pace of daily reporting. A month or so later we held a party at the Mezz restaurant in the Princes Building, the de rigeur venue for dotcom launches. Champagne flowed into the wee hours and guests received give-aways of cigars wrapped in our logo and purple umbrellas with silver handles.

The early version of the website certainly did contain some of our more grandiose ideas. There was the Mood Meter for example -- an interactive gadget built using new-fangled "Flash" technology that measured readers' responses to a particular topic. Readers would cast their vote on a topic and the needle on the mood meter (picture a car odometer) would bounce around before settling at a point on the dial that indicated a consensus. We also carried some content feeds from third-parties and struck a few deals with other websites, including a wine distributor, to share buttons. But some of the more interactive components of our early business plan -- such as message boards and a full-blown recruitment service -- never got off the ground.

Instead, we found ourselves occupied with the task of feeding the hungry beast with daily stories, and contrary to earlier predictions, discovered that readers came to FinanceAsia.com for the same reasons they opened the magazine -- in search of quality articles written by specialist journalists.

The cornerstone of our success quickly became our email newsletter -- the daily message that broadcasts the top stories on the site. In a press release dated July 2000, then-publisher Foster Wright reported that "in just a short time, we have built up an average monthly page view tally of 350,000 and a database of 7,600 e-mail newsletter subscribers".

Ten years on and the number of subscribers who receive our daily newsletter has reached 34,000. Page views are up to 1.1 million per month, with the most popular stories in 2010 attracting up to 68,000 page views on their own. The statistics show that our readers like breaking stories as well as our analysis of market-changing events such as the impact of Lehman Brothers' collapse on Asia. And, as always, they are enthusiastic about gossip, swarming to our stories on people moves and awards announcements.

FinanceAsia.com has built itself a reputation as a reliable and timely source of news and views on Asia's capital markets. The tireless efforts of our journalists have produced an archive of 13,000 articles that readers regularly search and source. And they now pay a subscription fee for these archives, proving that consumers are prepared to buy web stories if they are exclusive and important. Just in the last few months we have added live webcasts and video-conferences to the site, and launched new newsletters such as the Corporate Treasury Weekly.

So, 10 years after FinanceAsia.com first debuted on the worldwide web, the website is still changing. What we thought would be a revolutionary move for our publishing business has indeed been a slow, gratifying evolution.

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